Monday, February 27, 2006

Tune in, turn on ... evolve?

Scripps Howard News Service

On the walls of dozens of caves in southern France and northern Spain lie some of the most majestic works of art ever painted. Drawn 25,000 to 40,000 years ago, the paintings have puzzled anthropologists since they were discovered more than four decades ago.

Where did this astonishing display of talent come from? Why did these prehistoric societies decide to paint these scenes in such remote locations? And what inspired them to paint the strange array of bisons, horses and therianthropes (part animal, part man)?

A scientific consensus of sorts has finally emerged on one of those questions: Although there are still dissenters, a majority of anthropologists now champion the theory that the paintings in Europe were the work of shamans, and in part the product of trance states, likely induced by psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in some species of mushrooms).

Similarly, South African anthropologist David Lewis-Williams maintains that the remarkable rock art of the San people of southern Africa, also painted at least 25,000 years ago, is the result of shamanic trances created by drumming and ritual ecstatic dancing.

In his new book, Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind, published by Random House, British writer Graham Hancock has taken Lewis-Williams's research as a point of departure to posit a theory as fascinating as it is provocative: If it's true that cave art derives from altered states of consciousness, then it constitutes a watershed moment in human history, marking the first visible encounter with the supernatural, the first expression of spiritual myth.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the paintings were begun just when, according to anthropologists, human civilization made a great leap forward in terms of social organization, hunting-and-gathering skills and general creativity.

Hancock (previously author of Fingerprints of the Gods and The Sign and the Seal) notes striking similarities between cave paintings produced by shamanic artists 25,000 years ago and the abundant descriptions of fairies, elves, angels and other fantastic creatures commonly reported in Europe from the medieval ages to the 17th century.

And what is their modern equivalent? Hancock suggests the myriad accounts of alien abduction. His new book devotes several hundred pages to documenting these parallels, showing a surprising commonality of visions.

Although he does not rule out the possibility of extraterrestrial encounters, Hancock says the vast majority of these accounts are more logically explained by spontaneous entrance into trance states.

Because few of the alien abductees are users of mind-altering drugs, the most likely explanation, he believes, is that the brains of a small percentage of the population contain slightly higher levels of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) than already occur naturally in humans, as well as in other mammals, frogs, grasses, barks and flowers. Such people, he says, don't need to consume magic mushrooms or any other drug in order to enter trance states: Their hallucinogenic potential is more or less built-in.

Hancock insists that just because such events and encounters may not have occurred on a physical plane, it doesn't mean they never happened. His book quotes Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD, who wrote that the brain, biochemically altered, tunes to "another wavelength than that corresponding to normal, everyday reality."

As part of his project, Hancock plunged himself into the netherworld of mind-altering drugs _ he ate psychedelic mushrooms, took the African drug ibogaine, drank ayahuasca tea 13 times and smoked DMT. His own drug experiences included multiple encounters with "spirit beings" that, he insists, have profoundly changed him.

"This life we look at is only a fragment of reality. ... What the physicists have arrived at with the notion of parallel dimensions, through their methods, is pretty much the same as what shamans are arriving at through their methods," Hancock says. "Except shamans are ahead of the quantum physicists, because they can actually get into those dimensions."

Going a few steps further than the late John Allegro, a Dead Sea scholar who suggested in the 1970s that early Christianity was essentially a mushroom-and-sex cult, Hancock maintains that all religions are "rooted and grounded in shamanic experiences."

In Toronto recently to promote his book, Hancock said organized religion as we know it is "the attempt to account for and explain those experiences. And then the bureaucrats come in, take it over, become the priesthood, impose themselves as the sole intermediaries, and eventually lose the connection to the spiritual life that once was at the heart of the religion. We've seen that again and again.

"I don't even know if God isn't one of those things that happen after the bureaucrats step in. Indeed, many monotheistic religions are very opposed to altered states of consciousness. And so we've lost contact with the origins of religion."

The use of most hallucinogens, of course, is outlawed in most Western nations. In that context, Hancock _ a former Economist correspondent in East Africa who gave up journalism to begin writing bestselling books about lost civilizations _ says most of us live under a repressive regime.

"If you pause to think about it," he says, "the essence of a human being is consciousness. Without it, we are nothing. So it's a transgression of my sovereignty as an individual that some other individual can rule on what experiences I may or may not have with my consciousness, doing no harm to others."

by Michael Posner


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